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Film review: The Martian

Wednesday 30th September 2015

How much you enjoy The Martian will depend heavily on just how charming you find Matt Damon.

Matt Damon in The Martian.

Ridley Scott, on the back of a slew of disappointments, is rolling the dice once again with the release of space epic The Martian. Yet in spite of an all-star ensemble cast, an apparently unlimited budget, and a best selling novel as source material, this overlong tale fails to reach the sci-fi benchmark set by Scott himself.

Unlike the dark tales told by previous Scott sci-fi masterpieces such as Alien or Blade Runner, The Martian tells a straightforward and surprisingly upbeat rescue/survival story. Matt Damon is Mark Watney, an astronaut whose pioneering mission to Mars goes awry when a sudden dust storm forces an early departure. In the scramble to escape, Mark appears to be killed and his crew leave without him, yet of course somehow he is not dead at all. With minimal supplies and only a video log to talk to, Mark must face his hostile environment alone, and so begins an almost three hour running time in which he, his crew and NASA must work together in order for him to survive and escape.

It is not a spoiler to say that sadly at no point are there any actual martians.

What there is: Shots of an admittedly beautiful if not necessarily convincing Mars landscape; Mark, fortunately an expert botanist, growing indoor potatoes to supplement his food rations; serious yet attractive scientists and astrophysicists looking troubled in large, impressive control rooms; a huge ensemble cast; tiny American flag waving; and some very, very unsubtle pandering to the Chinese market.

Which is to say, it is a long three hours.

Not everyone will feel this way, however, and how much you enjoy the film will depend heavily on just how charming you find Matt Damon. Spending a great deal of screen time alone as he conveniently narrates his actions to the video log, Mark is characterised primarily by his penchant for talking almost exclusively in wisecracks and one liners: “Take that Neil Armstrong!”; “Fuck you Mars!” ; “I’m going to science the shit out of it!”; “I’m freezing my balls off!”; “I’m a space pirate!”; and so forth.

Unfortunately, with public goodwill toward Damon at an all time low in the wake of his recent *ahem* PR debacles, this got old quickly. Yet it’s not only this overreliance on Mark’s charisma that is the issue. What’s perhaps weirdest about The Martian is that it is not at all weird. In fact, almost all sense of the strangeness, loneliness and isolation surely inherent in being alone for any period of time on another planet, appears to have been deliberately eschewed.

Immune to the uncanny, there is a strange sense of nobility and entitlement attached to Mark’s plight. In addition to the dated and repetitive humour is an almost embarrassing earnestness, and rather than any bad joke, it was with this peculiar and vaguely offensive conceit that The Martian lost its way.

With the refugee crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement happening as we speak, a film about the use of billions of dollars worth of government money to rescue a single white male from space seems loaded and oddly obtuse at a time when the value of human life seems so politically uncertain.

The Martian is a fantasy, as is the absence trauma, loneliness and ennui. The fantasy is that space remains for us to pioneer and conquer, abundant in land that can be guiltlessly settled, our home planet full of people watching our plight with hushed reverence. It's the fantasy of a noble colonisation.

Though we are given glimpses of the family and friends of his crewmates awaiting their loved ones to return, no such thing seems to await Mark on Earth. His value as the object of the rescue operation then is based solely on who and what he is. The pioneering white genius is in and of itself too valuable to lose. Despite the actually fairly diverse cast, the film revolves almost glibly around its hero, and it’s almost painful to watch the underused Chiwetel Ejiofor wonder what Matt Damon “must be going through.”

With the news coming a day prior to its release that NASA have found evidence of water on Mars, it’s hard to tell if the overall propaganda-ish subtext of The Martian is complicated or clarified. Given the very strong pro-space exploration message contained within, it certainly seems like a happy coincidence for NASA, though in all actuality it is probably just a case of fairly innocent PR piggy-backing.

Sadly for Scott, however, this news only gives the illusion of prescience. The Martian instead is more of a relic - an indulgent foray into the fantasy of guiltless settlement.

Nowadays though, this reads as more of a nightmare. Mark is an upper-middle class, middle-aged white male, assured beyond doubt of his own specialness who talks in endless monologue about himself. Faux self-deprecating and a total smart-arse, he is irritatingly familiar and his story is one that has been told countless times before. Yet as public impatience with the politics of privilege grows, his significance has rightly become uncertain. It’s something that not even the glossy Hollywood stylings of a film like The Martian can truly suppress.



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